Whether you are going out to enjoy just a pint or two of quality ale, or you are partying hard into the night, licensing laws will affect the way you enjoy your night. It is often noted by Europeans who visit or stay in our country, just how different our drinking habits are to those in mainland Europe. This is often attributed to differing licensing laws – with those in the U.K. much stricter than those in Europe. This, in the past, has been thought to lead to a culture of ‘binge drinking’ in the U.K, whereby punters rush to fit in as many pints as they can before closing time at 11 pm. Anyone who has travelled or lived on the continent will note how much more relaxed the clientèle of cafes are, possibly as a result of having plenty of time in which to enjoy their drinks. Bars and cafe’s in Europe are often open until the early hours of the morning as a matter of course.
In November 2005 the licensing laws changed in the U.K. to reflect policy in the rest of Europe. It was hoped that in doing so, binge drinking, and the crime that often relates to it would be tackled. However, these changes met with widespread distrust from the tabloid press, who pointed out that in the U.K. we follow a ‘Northern European’ pattern of drinking. Arguably, as most countries in Northern Europe (for example, Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K.) foster drinking habits similar to the U.K’s whilst having relaxed drinking laws, a relaxation of U.K. law could be misplaced; possibly, if anything, it could lead to a worse binge drinking epidemic than we previously experienced.
One year on from these changes it is still difficult to gauge the impact of changing laws, which are – in any case – variable depending on the policy of local authorities. We can at least, look to clarify nature of the changes, which are often confusing.
Licensing Laws Prior to 2005
Licensing laws were first passed in response to the ‘Gin Epidemic’ in the 18th century (see related article: ‘The History of the Pub’). Initially, laws required simply that a responsible person be made the ‘licensee’ of a pub, in order to overlook the establishment and ensure that drunkenness and debauchery did not prevail. From the 19th to early 20th century licensing hours were gradually imposed, with blanket restrictions being applied throughout the U.K. during World War One (The Defence of the Realm Act, 1914). These restrictions stipulated that a pub could only open between 12pm and 2:40pm, and 6:30pm to 9:30pm. These laws served to hamper soldiers and munitions workers from get overly merry, thus enhancing their working performance, and contributing to the war effort. These laws were relaxed over recent years, allowing pubs to remain open until 11pm from Monday to Saturday, and 10:30pm on a Sunday. Extensions to these licensing laws were granted, in exceptional cases to some pubs and nightclubs, and on bank holidays to a wider selection of pubs.
The New Licensing Laws
The Labour Government fought hard to introduce new licensing laws (The Licensing Act, 2003) amid opposition from the tabloid press, The Liberal Democrats, The Conservative Party and even the Police! After two years of debating, new laws were finally implemented, coming into effect on November 24th 2005. The laws allow for local authorities to take more control of granting licenses to drinking establishments. Under these laws (which apply to England and Wales), are often refereed to as ’24 hour drinking laws’, a pub, club, restaurant, supermarket or off-licence must apply for extensions to its existing licensing agreements. A licence can then be granted for an establishment to open for any period of time during a 24 hour period, provided they close for a minimum of one hour to clean their premises. In reality, of course, very few establishments opt to open for very long hours – the new laws merely allow for more flexibility than the previous laws did.
The term ’24 hour drinking laws’ naturally conjures up images of hordes of people drinking for 24 hours! However, on the whole local authorities are keen to avoid this situation, and in many troubled areas the laws have, in fact, been used to further restrict existing opening hours.
It is unclear precisely what effect new licensing laws will have on drinking habits. With a smoking ban in all public places coming in to effect in Summer 2007, the face of the pub is set change beyond recognition over the coming years. To what extent British drinking habits will change in the near future remains to be seen. Quite possibly, a change in attitudes towards drinking will have to develop over a long period of time through increased public education regarding sensible drinking. The promotion of the pleasures to be gained from quietly enjoying a real ale, rather than ‘downing’ as many lagers as possible, is likely to play a major part in this development.